Skip to main content

Prehospital treatment of sepsis: what really makes the “golden hour” golden?


The early recognition of severe sepsis is important; however, early identification of severe sepsis can be challenging, especially in the prehospital setting. As previous research has shown, advanced notification of time-sensitive disease states by prehospital personnel can improve outcomes and time to initiation of treatments. Prehospital personnel can potentially impact outcomes in sepsis through early identification and treatment implementations, improving processes of care and transition of care. Further research is needed for a full evaluation of prehospital treatment effects of identification of sepsis and treatment by prehospital personnel and the impact on outcomes.


In a previous issue of Critical Care, Seymour and colleagues [1] performed a prospective observational study on the effect of prehospital intravenous (IV) catheter placement and fluid resuscitation in patients with severe sepsis. The authors should be commended for their efforts, as prehospital research can be particularly challenging, often requiring great forethought and planning. It is obvious that they thoughtfully and carefully approached their study, in both data collection and statistical analysis.

Despite much research and effort directed at the improved recognition and treatment of sepsis, sepsis-related mortality remains high [2]. Although various miracle drugs and iterations of resuscitation protocols have come and gone [3]-[5], perhaps the most consistent finding is that early recognition of severe sepsis and septic shock improves outcomes [6],[7]. Simple identification of a disease state may seem like an easily obtainable goal, but recognition of sepsis, and even septic shock, is challenging. If recognition of sepsis remains elusive for the intensivist and emergency medicine physician with laboratory and imaging adjuncts, it is that much more difficult for prehospital personnel who must rely on limited clinical indicators alone. Systemic inflammatory response criteria, though a somewhat useful initial screening tool, are poorly specific for sepsis [8]. Although previous authors have attempted to develop screening tools for prehospital identification of patients with severe sepsis, these tools have yet to be validated and sometimes require lactate measurement not available to most prehospital personnel [9].

Seymour and colleagues [1] suggest that, in patients with severe sepsis, prehospital fluid resuscitation is associated with improved mortality. If it is assumed that an oxygen supply and demand mismatch represent the primary pathology in sepsis and that prompt fluid administration helps to improve this, it is tempting to interpret these data to suggest that even earlier fluid administration to patients with sepsis leads to decreased mortality. Patients who received IV fluids or access were rated as more acutely ill in this study, and those who received IV fluids had a lower systolic blood pressure; so it is surprising that these patients, the sicker patients, would have better adjusted mortality rates. Or is it?

Interestingly, patients who received an IV catheter alone demonstrated improved adjusted mortality rates compared with those patients who received neither an IV catheter nor fluids, with adjusted odds ratios similar to those of patients who received IV fluids. In their discussion, the authors rightly note that placement of an IV catheter may be influencing processes of care. Perhaps placement of an IV or administration of IV fluids is simply a marker of severe sepsis recognition. As noted, advanced identification and notification by prehospital personnel are associated with improved outcomes and time to procedure in other conditions such as ST elevation myocardial infarction and stroke [10],[11]. Similarly, previous research has shown that a written diagnosis of sepsis by prehospital personnel is associated with improved times to antibiotics and initiation of goal-directed therapy [12].

Of course, a provider cannot only recognize severe sepsis; they must use this diagnosis and promptly proceed with a treatment plan to ultimately affect outcomes. Another potential explanation for the difference in mortality is that patients arriving with IV access had fewer delays in the implementation of physician orders. Although obtaining IV access alone is typically not a time-consuming process, the cumulative delay of increased triage times and time to obtain IV access, start IV fluids, and initiate antibiotics could be quite significant.

In further support of the interpretation that processes, not simply prehospital IV fluids or access, drive the study results is the fluid volume administered. With a median fluid volume of 500 mL, it seems difficult to accept that this volume of fluid substantially altered mortality or organ failure score in and of itself. However, given the relatively low risk of complications associated with IV fluid resuscitation, especially the volume transfused during typical transport times, it seems like a relatively low-risk intervention, with definite potential benefits that further studies should explore.

In summary, we believe that the findings of Seymour and colleagues [1] are more likely a representation of improvements in downstream processes of care rather than fluid administration or IV access per se. As a result, we believe these data actually have much broader implications. The recognition of severe sepsis is crucial to the early diagnosis and management of sepsis, and the prehospital setting is no exception. Prehospital personnel can potentially play a vital role in improving outcomes by early identification and initiation of treatment, improving processes of care. While severe sepsis remains a unique and challenging disease state, optimal outcomes and treatment plans require a team approach incorporating nurses, physicians, and prehospital personnel, with education and training on the recognition and early identification of severe sepsis and septic shock.





  1. Seymour CW, Cooke CR, Heckbert SR, Spertus JA, Callaway CW, Martin-Gill C, Yealy DM, Rea TD, Angus DC: Prehospital intravenous access and fluid resuscitation in severe sepsis: an observational cohort study. Crit Care. 2014, 18: 533-10.1186/s13054-014-0533-x.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  2. Angus DC, van der Poll T: Severe sepsis and septic shock. N Engl J Med. 2013, 369: 2063-10.1056/NEJMra1208623.

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  3. Sprung CL, Annane D, Keh D, Moreno R, Singer M, Freivogel K, Weiss YG, Benbenishty J, Kalenka A, Forst H, Laterre PF, Reinhart K, Cuthbertson BH, Payen D, Briegel J: Hydrocortisone therapy for patients with septic shock. N Engl J Med. 2008, 358: 111-124. 10.1056/NEJMoa071366.

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  4. Ranieri VM, Thompson BT, Barie PS, Dhainaut JF, Douglas IS, Finfer S, Gardlund B, Marshall JC, Rhodes A, Artigas A, Payen D, Tenhunen J, Al-Khalidi HR, Thompson V, Janes J, Macias WL, Vangerow B, Williams MD: Drotrecogin alfa (activated) in adults with septic shock. N Engl J Med. 2012, 366: 2055-2064. 10.1056/NEJMoa1202290.

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  5. Yealy DM, Kellum JA, Huang DT, Barnato AE, Weissfeld LA, Pike F, Terndrup T, Wang HE, Hou PC, LoVecchio F, Filbin MR, Shapiro NI, Angus DC: A randomized trial of protocol-based care for early septic shock. N Engl J Med. 2014, 370: 1683-1693. 10.1056/NEJMoa1401602.

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  6. Dellinger RP, Levy MM, Rhodes A, Annane D, Gerlach H, Opal SM, Sevransky JE, Sprung CL, Douglas IS, Jaeschke R, Osborn TM, Nunnally ME, Townsend SR, Reinhart K, Kleinpell RM, Angus DC, Deutschman CS, Machado FR, Rubenfeld GD, Webb SA, Beale RJ, Vincent JL, Moreno R: Surviving sepsis campaign: international guidelines for management of severe sepsis and septic shock: 2012. Crit Care Med. 2013, 41: 580-637. 10.1097/CCM.0b013e31827e83af.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  7. Levy MM, Dellinger RP, Townsend SR, Linde-Zwirble WT, Marshall JC, Bion J, Schorr C, Artigas A, Ramsay G, Beale R, Parker MM, Gerlach H, Reinhart K, Silva E, Harvey M, Regan S, Angus DC: The Surviving Sepsis Campaign: results of an international guideline-based performance improvement program targeting severe sepsis. Crit Care Med. 2010, 38: 367-374. 10.1097/CCM.0b013e3181cb0cdc.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  8. Klein Klouwenberg PM, Ong DS, Bonten MJ, Cremer OL: Classification of sepsis, severe sepsis and septic shock: the impact of minor variations in data capture and definition of SIRS criteria. Intensive Care Med. 2012, 38: 811-819. 10.1007/s00134-012-2549-5.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  9. Guerra WF, Mayfield TR, Meyers MS, Clouatre AE, Riccio JC: Early detection and treatment of patients with severe sepsis by prehospital personnel. J Emerg Med. 2013, 44: 1116-1125. 10.1016/j.jemermed.2012.11.003.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  10. Nam J, Caners K, Bowen JM, Welsford M, O’Reilly D: Systematic review and meta-analysis of the benefits of out-of-hospital 12-lead ECG and advance notification in ST-segment elevation myocardial infarction patients. Ann Emerg Med. 2014, 64: 176-186. 10.1016/j.annemergmed.2013.11.016.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  11. Abdullah AR, Smith EE, Biddinger PD, Kalenderian D, Schwamm LH: Advance hospital notification by EMS in acute stroke is associated with shorter door-to-computed tomography time and increased likelihood of administration of tissue-plasminogen activator. Prehosp Emerg Care. 2008, 12: 426-431. 10.1080/10903120802290828.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  12. Studnek JR, Artho MR, Garner CL, Jones AE: The impact of emergency medical services on the ED care of severe sepsis. Am J Emerg Med. 2012, 30: 51-56. 10.1016/j.ajem.2010.09.015.

    Article  Google Scholar 

Download references

Author information

Authors and Affiliations


Corresponding author

Correspondence to Alan E Jones.

Additional information

Competing interests

The authors declare that they have no competing interests.

Rights and permissions

Reprints and permissions

About this article

Check for updates. Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

Sterling, S.A., Puskarich, M.A. & Jones, A.E. Prehospital treatment of sepsis: what really makes the “golden hour” golden?. Crit Care 18, 697 (2014).

Download citation

  • Published:

  • DOI: